By Joshua Luke Sandoval
Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Bexar County
Let’s state the obvious: We cannot view the juvenile justice system as a mini version of the adult criminal system. Although there are plenty of shared aspects between them, they are two distinct systems.
At its core, juvenile justice seeks a result in the best interests of the respondent (juvenile). As such, many tools the State utilizes when prosecuting delinquent conduct focus on rehabilitation. Part of the logic behind this focus is imparting upon the respondent life skills and coping mechanisms to avoid involvement in the adult criminal justice system down the road. Although living in the fallen world that we do, where rehabilitative conclusions are not always feasible, it is praiseworthy to look deeper into some of the unique approaches that juvenile justice specialists use daily to effectuate some of this desired change.
One of these unique approaches is the Crossover Court, which serves youth who have both referrals for offenses as well as Child Protective Services (CPS) involvement. This program seeks to decrease recidivism while increasing services to such youth. As one can expect in a state as large and diverse as Texas, there are many differences among our jurisdictions, and there can be multiple solutions to these shared similar problems. For this article, I will focus on some of the specific approaches Bexar County has undertaken over the past decade in combatting this issue.
The intellectual beginnings
In 2010, the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform established a practice model for handling juveniles who have both referrals for delinquent conduct and a particular involvement with CPS. Research has identified this specific subset of youth as being at particular risk of “crossing over” between the two systems (CPS and juvenile justice), often suffering negative outcomes. To minimize them, the Center created a program that could “improve outcomes for youth, families, and communities” through increased communication and concentrated services with a dual-system approach that involves assistance from both agencies.
As you have probably guessed, discerning reader, communication is of foundational importance, and the first step is quick identification of eligible youth between the juvenile system and CPS. The necessity of communication continues throughout the process as well, involving not only the aforementioned agencies, but also the youth and her family, as the practice model encourages collaborative case management among multiple involved parties. Thus, frequent team assessment discusses improvement in the youth’s supervision and progress toward the ultimate goal of permanency and case closure. Currently, seven jurisdictions in Texas have created provisions for crossover courts based on this model.
Identifying problems and constructing solutions
Nearly 10 years ago, Bexar County began to address an issue that was anything but new. For quite some time, those working with CPS or within the juvenile justice system saw a burden on a very specific subset of youth, namely those with both juvenile referrals for delinquent conduct and CPS involvement in their families. As participants in these two systems, youth had to abide by two sets of requirements and orders, one from the CPS court and the other from the juvenile court. On paper this doesn’t sound like too much of a burden; however, as with most things in life, it could be difficult in practice.
For the juveniles and their families trying to stay afloat in the choppy water of both systems simultaneously, successful participation was not an easy task. In Bexar County, the two dockets are not only held in different courts but also in different judicial complexes roughly three miles apart. Each court had its own set of participants, and each was managed independently. For a system that can already be confusing for those trained and well-versed in it, it became impossibly frustrating for those with not a bit of training.
Furthermore, supervision of the youth was often separate, with CPS officials peering in for one matter and juvenile justice professionals touching base on another. Worse, when the systems weren’t separating issues, they were needlessly duplicating services and functions. Youth could find themselves required to attend two sets of services that were nearly identical in nature. These redundancies were frustrating for the youth and did not disseminate valuable information efficiently for the two systems. Additionally, the separate dockets required double the number of court appearances, which frequently had adverse effects on school attendance and academic performance for the youth and caused hardship with jobs and childcare for their families. For those youth involved in both CPS and juvenile justice, there was clear threat of getting lost in the labyrinth.
In 2012, the involved professionals began to review methods to improve the situation. After a 10-month research and planning process, Bexar County adopted the Crossover Court model as developed by the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. Accepting its first case in January 2013, this court provides a mechanism to transfer youths’ CPS cases to the juvenile district court so that both matters can be heard in the same location, by the same judge, and with services offered by the same team. Operating under the mantra of “one child, one team,” this court makes communication an important pillar and ensures that participating youth receive effective care and services in both systems.
The obvious first two requisites are a youth’s involvement in both the CPS system as well as a juvenile referral for delinquent conduct. In Bexar County, the level of CPS involvement required to trigger eligibility for Crossover Court includes 1) an open legal CPS case where the children have been removed from the family and who 2) are in the conservatorship of the state. For our purposes here, CPS involvement can include either Permanent Managing Conservatorship (PMC) or Temporary Managing Conservatorship (TMC).
Knowing who is eligible is one thing—readily identifying them can be slightly more difficult. Eventually, the computer systems of CPS and the juvenile department were modified to open up communication between the two agencies on this matter. Thus, in practice, if a juvenile with CPS involvement receives a referral for delinquent conduct, the computer system reflects this youth’s eligibility for the crossover program. This quick identification of eligible juveniles starts initial discussions between agencies, which transforms into consistent communication throughout the process.
Once a participant is deemed eligible, a series of intensive staff meetings commence. The conversation begins when representatives of CPS and Juvenile Probation meet to discuss eligible youth. In Bexar County, this conversation is consistent and frequent, with meetings taking place weekly to look deeper into the lives of these youth. If, after an initial screening of a particular case, representatives from both agencies feel that a particular juvenile may be a good fit for the program, the case will proceed to a secondary level of staffing. It is noteworthy that these staffings are not constructed for exclusionary purposes. Most youth who qualify for the program are accepted, the exceptions normally due to matters still pending in the CPS court or a particularly serious charge.
This secondary staffing involves a representative from the local Juvenile Probation Department discussing specific cases with members of the Criminal District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors from the CPS unit and Juvenile Division offer input on the cases and the particular challenges that a youth may face. Both prosecutors have very specialized roles within the system and possess unique insight into important aspects of an eligible youth’s CPS case or juvenile referral.
The CPS ACDA in Bexar County has a variety of considerations when contemplating if a youth will be a good fit for Crossover Court. Some of these include placement options, family involvement, whether other specialty courts could better serve the youth’s needs, and where the case is in the CPS process. In terms of placement options, those that are closer are obviously preferred, especially in situations where the youth’s family is actively involved. Many offices have multiple “diversion” programs, including those for youthful offenders, human trafficking, mental health, or other specialty courts, that may give a child a better chance to succeed. And if the child is in TMC and a trial on termination of parental rights is on the horizon, it may be advantageous to at least temporarily delay the transfer out of CPS court.
Regarding the Juvenile ACDA, the staffing considerations are slightly different from what one may expect. For many specialty court programs, the main issue a prosecutor considers is whether a respondent merits admission or will succeed; however, in the juvenile system, the calculus is different, as the entire purpose of the crossover program is to aid youth who are dually involved and to increase efficiency in the system. As such, many on the referral (juvenile justice) side have a more liberal approach to participation and avoid approaching staffing with a yea-or-nay mentality. For most juvenile justice specialists, the focus in Crossover Court is the increased communication and efficient resolution of the CPS matter. When reviewing cases, the Juvenile ACDA serves as an important resource for information on the status of a referral and even the likelihood the case may be resolved. Finally, the juvenile prosecutor’s knowledge of a respondent’s referral history can be of particular benefit, especially in instances when thinking of a suitable placement facility if a change is needed.
It is very important to note that the ACDA in the juvenile division still has a case of delinquent conduct to consider. Participation in Crossover Court does not mean that a juvenile referral should be rejected. This is especially true in situations with a victim or public safety concerns. Although this prosecutor is part of a team to aid the respondent, the referral is by no means abandoned in a misguided attempt at altruism. Most of us can agree that for respondents at this young age, delinquent conduct is often a symptom of a greater problem. In these situations, court supervision and various juvenile probation services are often the most efficacious means of addressing this behavior, and to prematurely non-suit a referral may be depriving the team of the only way of offering those services.
Once secondary staffing is completed, the Juvenile Probation crossover supervisor will prepare a list of recommendations and present it to the judge for independent review. In Bexar County, the 436th Judicial District Court, one of three juvenile courts, serves as Crossover Court. Once the presiding judge decides the candidate is a good fit for the program and accepts her, the appropriate documents are sent to the CPS court officially transferring the CPS component of the case to the juvenile district court.
Participation in Crossover Court
Up until this point, the focus has been on identifying and screening eligible youth, but once they’ve been properly identified, numerous parties work together to concentrate on the juvenile enrolled in the program, all with the same goal of offering services to these at-risk respondents. This is where we really begin to see the formation of the “dual docket” approach, with both the CPS and juvenile matters being handled in the same court and with an assembled team of specialists from both agencies ready to contribute.
Let’s become acquainted with the specialists who comprise the Crossover Court team. Some of the parties seem rather obvious, whereas others a little more unusual:
• Juvenile Probation officer,
• CPS caseworker,
• ACDA from the Juvenile division,
• CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer(s),
• the respondent’s defense attorney for the juvenile justice matter,
• a guardian ad litem,
• the juvenile’s parents if they are involved,
• attorneys representing members of the family (in some cases), and
• if applicable, the juvenile’s siblings.
The Juvenile Probation officer is a key member of the team; he is the go-to person in terms of reporting on the progress the youth is making on her juvenile supervision. Unique to the juvenile justice system, a probation officer has involvement in a juvenile referral from the beginning of the process. This officer keeps in very close contact with the youth and her family and monitors important issues such as home life, academic performance, and any problems the youth may have, such as substance abuse.
Similarly, the CPS caseworker monitors the youth’s home life and living situation but does so with a different perspective; this person focuses more on the youth’s environment.
Earlier in the process, before the transfer, the CPS court judge appoints a CASA volunteer for each respondent. This volunteer advocates for and supports the juvenile during what is assuredly a frustrating phase of life. The CASA can serve also as a bit of consistency in a rather uncertain time, acting like a trusted Sherpa guiding the youth along a new and unfamiliar path.
In some instances, a respondent’s attorney for the juvenile referral will participate in the staffing and hearings on the CPS aspect. Whereas the focus may not be on the referral, the attorney may have valuable insight into aspects of the youth’s progress and areas of struggle.
In cases where the respondent’s family may not be in the picture and the child is in a Permanent Managing Conservatorship, a guardian ad litem may also monitor and advocate for the best interests of the respondent from a legal standpoint.
As the discerning reader probably noticed, a youth’s siblings may be involved in the crossover process. This is a great example of the program’s flexibility to achieve an efficient resolution. In Bexar County, if a youth in Crossover Court has siblings who are also in CPS conservatorship, the CPS cases of those siblings are also transferred to the juvenile court, even if they do not have juvenile referrals. When viewed in light of the goals of the program—that is, to aid youth who are dually involved and to increase efficiency in the system—this makes perfect sense. The “one-stop shop” dual docket makes for a more efficient process. Furthermore, the enhanced communication minimizes the odds of the respondent failing, and involving other siblings ensures that they too can benefit from the streamlined process and support of combined services.
Another strong example of the program’s flexibility is ensuring future success by keeping the CPS case in front of the juvenile judge and the Crossover Court team, even after the youth’s juvenile case has been resolved. In Bexar County, if a youth’s probation term is completed before CPS issues are resolved, the case can still remain in front of the juvenile district court judge, which ensures the team can continue offering services to the youth, as well as keeping the judge who is familiar with the special circumstances and needs of the youth and family involved and engaged in the process. This special system recognizes that a juvenile’s case for delinquent conduct establishes a manifested need, and that need doesn’t magically disappear once the delinquent conduct has been addressed.
What happens in Crossover Court
One of the first things to occur post-transfer is that the youth’s CPS case is scheduled for a docket hearing in the juvenile court. This is basically what would have happened in the CPS court had the crossover never occurred. This docket date is disseminated to the youth and other members of the team. At this point, whatever CPS issue was pending is now heard by the district court judge. This can be anything from status updates on the youth, her current placement situation, academic progress, and even medical treatment. Sometimes the matters at hand will also involve CPS working to reunite the youth with her parents. Such CPS hearings continue as the process plays out. There may be various modifications in conservatorships or even a withdrawal of CPS involvement in the best-case scenarios.
In addition to CPS matters, each party in the process shares what he or she knows about the case and the youth. This information is also used to create various assignments for the youth or other members to work on in anticipation of the next hearing. Some of these assignments can be as simple as the youth improving the quality of her schoolwork or a guardian scheduling follow-up medical appointments for the juvenile. This is a fine example of communication at work and also a high level of support from numerous people who want to see the youth succeed.
What about the juvenile referral, you may ask? Well, the referral isn’t ignored, nor is it put on hold—after all, in many cases the referral is indicative of special issues the youth is having. It is undeniable that the youth’s delinquent conduct must be addressed. For all intents and purposes, Crossover Court involvement doesn’t disturb how the juvenile referral is handled. Keep in mind that the purpose of this model is not to afford the youth a more lenient supervision or promises of a rejected case; rather, the main goal is to aid and support youth identified as high-risk for reoffending. Pursuit of this goal does not require that the prosecutor ignore the safety of victims or the well-being of the community. These are always important considerations, and involvement in this process does not cast them aside.
At the hearings for the delinquent conduct, it is mostly business as usual, but one shouldn’t be surprised that members of the respondent’s crossover team will frequently “stop by” to keep the prosecutor up to speed on the respondent’s progress. Sometimes these little progress reports are motivated by a bit of pride on the part of the team member; other times they may be looking to troubleshoot and brainstorm on ways to help a youth who may be struggling.
Crossover Court results
Perhaps at this point you’re wondering about the substantive results of the Crossover Court in achieving its goals of reduced recidivism among juvenile participants and increased efficiency in the system. Regarding the former, some of the data from Bexar County’s review of the Crossover Court’s first five years indicate a 7 percent lower recidivism rate amongst crossover youth compared to the general Bexar County juvenile probation population. This statistic is more impressive when considering that the same data shows the crossover youth are nearly six times more likely to have a high-risk level in initial PACT assessments.
In terms of efficiency, let’s take a moment to look at things globally. Because Crossover Court handles both CPS and juvenile referrals, mandated services or treatments are not unnecessarily duplicated. Some affectionately refer to this conservation of services as “resource sharing” between the CPS and juvenile justice systems, which not only saves time but also valuable funding for programs already stretched thin. Plus, given the presence of more specialists at Crossover meetings and hearings, fewer questions go unanswered, a big benefit that reduces how often a case must be reset. Whereas postponements are not necessarily a negative, when they arise out of a need for more information (information that could have readily been proffered if the beautiful doors of communication were already open), it is mighty difficult to argue that they are something positive. After all, why put off until tomorrow what can be resolved today?
The Crossover Court here in Bexar County fills an excellent role in identifying at-risk youth, affording them efficient services to avoid reoffending, and supporting their families. At this important stage in their lives, the youth in this group are particularly vulnerable. Many are only a couple of years away from attaining the age of majority for purposes of penal law. Working with them in these important years to minimize the risk of reoffending, especially as adults, is a long-term goal that has huge societal implications. This approach demonstrates the significance in interagency communication and demonstrates an innovative approach to a problem that can unfortunately be all too common.
 Yes, there is plenty of overlap: Both systems rely on the same Penal Code, for the most part the rules of evidence are the same, and prosecutors are held to the same ethical standards.
 Keep in mind that due to the quasi-civil nature of the juvenile justice system, the youth charged with delinquent conduct are referred to as respondents as opposed to defendants.
 Tex. Fam. Code §54.03(a): Recall that respondents are charged with “delinquent conduct” as opposed to criminal activity.
 See the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, https://cjjr.georgetown.edu/our-work/crossover-youth-practice-model/cypm-background.
 See Tex. Fam. Code Ch. 262 & 263.
 Just to put things into perspective, the crossover eligible population is a sizeable population. Data from the Bexar County Juvenile Probation department from 2018 indicate that out of all the youth who are have juvenile referrals nearly 33 percent are crossover eligible.
 Remember that even though a youth may be in a conservatorship, that doesn’t necessarily mean the family is completely out of the picture.
 See Tex. Fam. Code §53.01.